The CHIEF OF Protocol at the Foreign Ministry, Yitzhak Eldan, knew he was going to be honored by the French government at the initiative of Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to Israel. A well-known francophile, Eldan has represented Israel in France and has a daughter who is presently studying there. He's been decorated before by the French government, but was now going to be elevated from Knight to Officer. He learned about the honor during the visit to Israel of French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, but what he didn't anticipate was that his new decoration would be conferred in the presence of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The ceremony took place during a working dinner between the two foreign ministers, with Douste-Blazy presenting Eldan the Palmes Academiques in recognition of his many contributions to the French-Israeli relationship, especially in the cultural sphere. Much to Eldan's surprise, Livni then got up herself and praised the quality of his work, saying that his award brought honor to her ministry, to her as minister and to the entire State of Israel. Noting his present position, Eldan then reviewed his three decades of diplomatic work with France, listing the many titles he's held over the years. "As for tomorrow, who knows?" he joked, referring to his presence on the short list of candidates to be Israel's next ambassador to France. The subtle hint was not lost on either minister, and both laughed. There has been no ambassador since Nissim Zvili completed his tour of duty last summer. Livni let it be known that she wants to shake up the foreign ministry, but she's waiting until after the early June publication of the State Comptroller's Report on the Foreign Ministry before making any appointments. ISRAELIS ESCORTING Douste-Blazy say he was astonished by the warm welcomes that greeted his entourage in its travels through Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. During his visit, Douste-Blazy told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that relations between France and Israel have improved significantly since former prime minister Ariel Sharon's visit to France in July 2005. There's a growing French presence in Israel in terms of investment, cultural exchange, fashion and new immigrants. Several days after the French foreign minister's visit, France became the first and only country to give any points to Israel at this year's Eurovision Song Contest. THE SENIOR foreign press coordinator in the Prime Minister's Office, David Baker does his reserve duty in the army as a member of the Army Spokesman's Office. In this capacity, he often takes dignitaries and visiting groups to see the security fence. Baker decided he had no reason not to continue the practice in civilian life, and thus takes important visitors on tours of the fence regardless of whether he is in uniform. He says he has been particularly encouraged and surprised by Australian visitors to the barrier - Jews and non-Jews alike - who demonstrate a far better understanding than most foreigners of Israel's reasons for building it. Baker attributes his surprise to the fact that Australia is an island continent that has never had a war on its territory, and that it is therefore not necessarily the easiest place to learn how to identify with Israel. ALMOST EVERY time she drives anywhere in the immaculate bright red Volkswagen Beetle she bought 20 years ago, Esther Lucas is asked if she wants to sell it. The Education for Development Officer of the Israel Committee for Unicef, Lucas is now in her mid-80s and still going strong. She has a young spirit and says she wouldn't part with her little red car even for offers far in excess of its market value. In addition to driving her red chariot, Lucas goes folk dancing every week. WHEN FAMED physicist and author Gerald Schroeder accepted an invitation to a Hadassah dinner, he did not expect a PR-style marketing pitch. As is usually the custom at Hadassah events, everyone present introduced himself, one table at a time. Schroeder was among the last, and didn't say too much about himself. It was left to Barbara Goldstein, deputy director of Hadassah's Israel office, to announce that Schroeder was the author of the much-discussed book Genesis and the Big Bang. As an enthusiastic fellow diner said, he has read the book so often that he can quote it chapter and verse. "It's so wonderful that I give it to other people to read, too," he enthused. "You mustn't do that," protested Schroeder. No, he wasn't being modest, he explained; it's just that he was more interested in having readers buy the book than borrow it. ITALIAN AMBASSADOR Sandro de Bernardin truly demonstrated the art of diplomacy at a recent event at Tel Aviv University. His address took place on the day when the new Italian government was installed, and naturally enough, when it came to question time, de Bernardin had to field questions about the new regime and whether the love affair between Italy and Israel that existed under Silvio Berlusconi would continue under Romano Prodi. Without appearing to evade the questions, de Bernardin deftly wove his way around them without offending anyone in the audience. The tumultuous ovation he received at the end of the evening indicated that his diplomatic ploy had worked. HER DEPARTURE had been talked about in diplomatic circles for months, but suddenly the time for it had arrived. Sally Bendersky, the Chilean ambassador and Deputy Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, had a full house last Friday at the farewell reception in her Herzliya Pituah residence. Bendersky, who will leave Israel next week, is the longest-serving ambassador after Dean of the Diplomatic Corps Henri Etoundi Essomba, who presented his credentials just under two years before Bendersky. The third-longest-serving ambassador is Romania's Valeria Mariana Stoica, who took up her post a month after Bendersky, and who will be returning home in September after six years in Israel. When Essomba succeeded Georgian Ambassador Revaz Gachechiladze in the deanship, he decided he needed a deputy, and Bendersky was the natural choice. The partnership had been very successful, he said, and through Bendersky he had gotten to know the vibrant Latin American group in the diplomatic corps. Her voice breaking with tears, Bendersky spoke of how much she had learned in Israel, and of the many friendships she had made. "I don't think I ever had so many true friends as I have in Israel," she said. Bendersky told The Jerusalem Post that she has no idea about what she will do next, but that she first and foremost wants to settle down and get to know her own country again. A fluent Hebrew speaker, she described Israel as "the most fascinating country in which to learn diplomacy," and promised to come back. Most diplomats say something similar at their farewell receptions. In Bendersky's case, however, there's absolutely no doubt that she'll be back. She has an infant sabra grandson, and wants to continue to be part of his life.